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Jon Lester’s nearly perfect game highlights pitching growth since 2008

05.11.13 at 1:45 am ET
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Jon Lester threw the third complete-game shutout of his career on Friday. (AP)

It’s just how memory works. Any time a baseball player is on the cusp of achieving something extraordinary, the mind tries to conjure parallels.

And so, as Jon Lester mowed through 17 straight Blue Jays to open Friday’s game — an eventual one-hitter and 5-0 Red Sox victory — it was almost impossible to ignore the evocations of his no-hitter almost exactly five years ago, the singular performance on May 19, 2008, that announced his coming of age as a pitcher.

Only it didn’t. At that time, Lester suggested, he was living with stuff and luck rather than execution. He walked a couple of batters and missed his spot on a number of offerings — in other words, the antithesis of what he was on Friday night.

To be sure, Lester had a sharp pitch mix. From the vantage point of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Lester had his complete arsenal.

“He had everything working tonight — fastball, changeup, cutter, curveball,” glowed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “My job was easy to be honest with you. Sit there, put a finger down and he’d throw it right where I put my glove. It was fun.”

But he wasn’t simply blowing it past a lineup — as he did against the Royals in 2008 — with little idea of where his pitches would end up. Instead, he was a dart-thrower who hit one bull’s-eye after another. By design, he wanted to take advantage of the early-count aggressiveness of the Blue Jays by attacking their swing-first mentality with a variety of pitches — particularly well-located fastballs either down in the zone or cutters on the hands, his changeup down and away — that would elicit bad contact early in an at-bat.

And so it was that Lester retired the side in the first on six pitches, navigated the second in 13 and then got through the third in another dozen pitches — totaling just 31 pitches by the time he’d recorded his first nine outs in succession.

Everything suggested precision, a pitcher who had a very specific gameplan on how to attack Toronto and who was following a blueprint to every last detail. To Lester, the contrast to his previous no hitter was obvious. His Friday night dominance of the Blue Jays had little resemblance to the signature regular-season accomplishment of his career.

“I think it’s complete opposites. Back then, I was such a thrower, not really a pitcher. I think the best way to put it is effectively wild for my no-hitter,” Lester reflected. “I’d try to go down and away, it’d go up and in and they’d hit a fly ball somewhere. It was not really understanding what was going on. It was just throwing the ball, whatever [Jason] Varitek called, and seeing what happens. Now I’m a little more mature in understanding what I’m trying to do. I feel like I pitch a lot more than I throw. They’re apples and oranges in comparison.”

The precise nature of Lester’s work leading up to his third career complete-game shutout — and first since that 2008 season — underscored the nature of the pitcher’s evolution. Five years ago, the left-hander was simply working to regain his power while building back from treatment for cancer in late-2006; he was physically reduced in 2007, but packed on strength as the 2008 campaign progressed.

Now, Lester has a five-day formula to sustain his tremendous pitchers’ build. And so, between starts, his focus was on meticulous execution of pitches. He focused on powering the ball down in the strike zone prior to his previous start in Texas (in which Lester took a no-decision after allowing three runs in six innings), and the approach paid considerable dividends on Friday.

“We didn’t invent anything new this time or do a different changeup grip or anything like that,” said Lester. “We just continued to preach the same things. It paid off today.”

It almost paid off in historic fashion. Lester was just one Maicer Izturis, two-out, sixth-inning line drive double down the left field line away from becoming the 22nd player in modern major league history to throw a perfect game — this, despite the fact that he didn’t necessarily have what might be characterized as no-hit stuff.

“Today classifies as a little bit of a grinder for me,” he suggested.

That being the case, Lester had reason for considerable enthusiasm. Whereas Saltalamacchia was a bit crestfallen that Lester did not get his perfect game (“Changeup first pitch — I’m going to have nightmares about it, to be honest with you,” said the catcher), the left-hander found plenty about which to enthuse, elements that mattered more to him than blasting zeros in the ‘H’ column on the scoreboard.

“The no-hitter, perfect game, all that stuff, the stars have to be perfectly aligned for you,” said Lester. “It has to happen.”

While Lester had to settle for retiring 27 of the 28 batters he faced, a case can be made that what he accomplished on Friday exceeded in significance what he did five years ago. Because, at least in theory, Lester’s execution on Friday represented a formula upon which he can continue to build his 2013 resume, which already features a glimmering 5-0 record and 2.73 ERA.

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